Coronavirus pandemic showed how much we need hospital chaplains

Clergy have been praised for the pastoral support they have given to traumatised doctors and nurses during the pandemic

Published by The Times

As the coronavirus tore through Britain’s hospitals, Father Craig Fullard was learning how to safely put on and take off his new vestments: the gown, mask, gloves and goggles required to enter Covid-19 wards.

Hospitals were a familiar place to Fullard, a Catholic priest who had spent ten years as a senior chaplain, but he admitted later he felt nervous being there in Birmingham. Not for any fear of catching the virus, but because he was taking up a PPE training slot that could have gone to a nurse or doctor.

However, as he led a small gaggle of fellow clergy to join the queue, a senior nurse turned around and smiled. “I’m so pleased to see you, we’re going to need you more than ever,” she said.

As hospitals fill up again this month with Covid-19 patients, hospital chaplains are some of the only non-medical staff who remain on the wards. Because the families of patients are not allowed on to coronavirus wards and many wards have been converted into intensive care units, chaplains’ work has changed dramatically.

Before the pandemic they had spent most of their time offering pastoral care and support to patients and their families. Hospital staff, and an increasing number of campaigners outside the NHS, were beginning to question their relevance and the public money spent employing them. Since the lockdown was imposed their primary task has become caring for NHS staff stretched to their limits by Covid-19. And having come through the crucible of coronavirus alongside those staff, they may have breathed new life and purpose into the centuries-old tradition of hospital chaplaincy.

The Rev Barrie Thomas, an Anglican chaplain in two hospitals in Cumbria, explains that once the pandemic hit with full force in mid-March, his team “switched our roles completely” to focus on the needs of healthcare workers. Inspired by colleagues in Italian hospitals, one of the first things Thomas, and many other chaplains, did was to create “wobble rooms”. These were spaces inside the hospital where doctors and nurses could retreat to if they were feeling fragile and needed a place to rest, cry or take stock. Thomas furnished his “pause for thought rooms” with comfy chairs and tables crammed with donated food and gifts from the public. He also created a “wall of hope” of messages and posters created by school children displayed by the main staff entrance, “so when they walk into hospitals the first thing they see is a gallery of art, so they know they are loved”.

In Fife, the Rev Mark Evans, head of the NHS board’s chaplaincy department, set up what he called “staff zones”, with food and toiletries to freshen up after gruelling 12-hour shifts labouring under hot and heavy PPE. “Part of the job is to be really reassuring, and a calm presence,” he said. “It’s also to give people space to talk about how they feel, their fears.” Away from normal HR structures and protected by strict confidentiality, staff felt free to “tell their story” to chaplains, he said.

Healthcare workers have been burdened by anxieties: would they catch the virus and give it to family members? Were they able to deliver the normally excellent levels of care? Simply standing there, in the same PPE, on a Covid-19 ward and asking staff, including cleaners and porters, how they were doing was unexpectedly vital, he recalled. “It’s a really simple thing but it makes a huge difference — you’re not asking about the patients, you’re asking about them. You’re affirming people’s humanity.”

The Rev Susan van Beveren, an Anglican chaplain in south London, said her team had been speaking to doctors and nurses self-isolating alone in their homes to check up on their mental and physical wellbeing.

The pandemic struck as criticism of hospital chaplaincy was mounting. A freedom of information investigation by The Independent in 2015 found that the total cost to the NHS was more than £23 million a year and rising (although this amounts to 0.02 per cent of the total health service budget). Growing numbers of doctors and nurses said they rarely came across chaplains, who increasingly worked on a referral basis rather than roaming the wards. They questioned what value they had in the hospital.

The National Secular Society (NSS) has long campaigned against religious chaplains in the NHS, arguing vociferously that they waste taxpayers’ money and discriminate against non-religious people. In January the Fit For the 21st Century? report by the Network for Pastoral, Spiritual and Religious Care in Health criticised chaplaincy services as mostly Christians catering for Christian patients. “It is not enough to claim that a service is there for ‘all faiths and none’ when representatives of just one religious tradition have an overwhelming role in determining the nature of the service and recruitment into it,” the authors concluded.

However, as the battle against coronavirus intensified, chaplains found themselves wanted like never before. Van Beveren said that she initially held back from some areas for fear of posing an unnecessary contamination risk, but quickly she realised that the staff in non-Covid wards also wanted her and her colleagues.

Several chaplains talked about the heavy “sigh” from healthcare staff which would often accompany the arrival of a chaplain on to the ward during normal times. It was a mixture of foreboding, presuming a patient was about to die and required a clergy presence, plus irritation at a non-medic getting in the way of “real” care. Now chaplains feel overwhelmingly welcomed by NHS staff. “Our whole profile has been raised within the hospital considerably,” Thomas reported. “We are no longer an add-on, which sometimes chaplaincy can be. Now it’s right at the heart of things.”

Fullard said that it had been one of the privileges of his life to spend 12-hour shifts wearing uncomfortable masks as a priest alongside others in the “NHS family”. Sharing the emotional burden, including weeping with doctors and nurses, had solidified those relationships, hopefully for good. At a time when the concept was being called into question more than ever before, a band of vicars and volunteers sprang into action to keep doctors and nurses going during the darkest hours. In so doing, they may just have saved chaplaincy for the 21st century.